Rescuing the Lost Children of America
Recently there was another school shooting in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma. The scenario sounds so familiar to us now. In a small, unknown town a cherubic-faced teen goes violent and shoots up a middle or high school seriously wounding, maiming or killing others. What is the result? The public becomes sickened with the news and asks “why?”
Then there follows a swarm of media attention, generating many debates. Unfortunately the debates seem focused on looking for someone or something to blame rather than on finding a workable solution. From watching the news, it appears the popular blame list includes violent entertainment, gun control laws and poor school security. Certainly these are contributing factors to our teens’ problems. But can’t we see that the taproot cause is far more basic than these things? Few seem astute or honest enough to admit the real problems with our teens. All indications show that teen problems are multiplying and growing far more extreme.
We who write for the Trumpet are concerned. Because people hear so much bad news, it could be so easy for the adults of America to become numb to and ignore the critically serious problems surrounding teens. Sages from every age have recognized that the future of any nation is built on the strength of its youth. If our youth are so sick, then what does our future hold? This chilling thought should stir all of us to immediate action.
Lessons From Rockdale
In October 1999, the Public Broadcasting Service aired a television special on teens titled “The Lost Children of Rockdale County.” The documentary dealt specifically with the troubled teens of Conyers, Georgia, a predominantly white and wealthy suburb 25 miles east of Atlanta. In the spring of 1996, public health officials in Rockdale County discovered a syphilis outbreak that affected over 250 teenagers—some as young as 13.
The public health investigation into the near epidemic std outbreak uncovered more than just extreme sexual promiscuity. Over a period of several months, the teens candidly revealed to nurses and social workers the reasons why they became sexually active. The program showed that the teens in Rockdale County were crying out for loving and effective parenting. The Conyers teens wanted attention, affection, discipline and moral guidance but were not getting it. In anger they rebelled and looked among themselves for support. They took out their frustrations by stealing, committing violent acts, doing drugs, participating in binge drinking and taking part in extreme group-sex activities. Health officials uncovered that one female, age 14, had had over 100 sex partners.
This pbs special put Conyers into nationwide notoriety for the second time in 1999. Remember in May 1999, Conyers made national headlines with the shootings at Heritage High School. T.J. Solomon is the classmate accused of assaulting the school and wounding six students. The documentary’s producers recognize that there is a direct connection between what they uncovered in Conyers and the Heritage High School violence. The documentary, featuring interviews with both teens and parents, is shocking and hard-hitting. But it is well worth watching. Why? It clearly defines the main cause for our teen problems and offers the only solution that will work.
Experts recognize that problems with teens in Conyers are typical of teens across America and Britain. Claire Sterk, Professor at Emory University School of Public Health, studied the teens for a period of months. She states, “I think that many of the adults who were the parents of the children involved in the outbreak, but even the parents of the children in general resemble a substantial proportion of people in the United States.” We must learn to use the lessons taught by Conyers. Let’s look at some of the problems investigators uncovered there.
Conyers represents what most would consider perhaps the best in America. It is the epitome of affluence, of upper-middle-class families. Even the schools, loaded with tax dollars, are considered the most well-off in the state. An std outbreak of the magnitude found there is not likely for a community with such a high standard of living. It was this fact that drew the attention of experts. They asked, how could this happen among young people who have so much? But experts discovered that Conyers’ affluence was one of the seeds of the teens’ destruction.
To achieve such affluence, both parents were forced to work hard and for long hours. There was little time left for their children. Parents also admitted that because they had to keep such long work days, they had little emotional support left for their children. Parents rarely talked with their teens.
Dr. Kathleen Toomey, Director of Georgia division of public health, gave her insight into this problem. She stated, “To me what was so extraordinary about this whole experience as a public health person who’s worked in communities for years was that this syphilis outbreak not only unmasked tremendously high-risk sexual activity among teens, but in addition it also unmasked tremendously dysfunctional families in communities where we never thought to look for this kind of dysfunction. Parents not talking to teenagers and that leading to a lot of acting out on the part of the teens.” The teens were left home alone for the afternoon and evening hours. Some parents even allowed their teens to be home alone on weekends.
It should really be no surprise then to learn that social workers discovered that the majority of the drinking, drug and sex parties took place in homes during the afternoon and early evening hours. Some of the young girl teens were running a sex club right underneath their parents’ noses. Unfortunately, some parents seemed not to care.
One teacher explained, “My students were talking to me about the parties that they were having on weekends, and there was one place in particular that they had lots of privacy. The parents were off and gone. And they said that they were watching the Playboy Channel in the girl’s bedroom. And there would be like 10 or 12 of them up there.
“And so I said, ‘Well, is everybody watching it?’ ‘Oh yeah. They’re all watching it.’ And so one of the little guys goes, ‘And we’re getting pretty good at it, too.’ I said, ‘Good at what?’ So he said, ‘…The game is you have to imitate what the Playboy people are doing.’”
Realize, this is a young teen talking. Following the example set by a sex channel, these teens got involved with group sex too perverted to discuss.
The lesson here should be crystal clear for us. Coming home to an empty house makes life too difficult for teens. There is no one to talk too. No one to discuss problems with. There is too much trouble to get into. Teens still need attention—a lot of attention! With no emotional support from adults, teens will turn to each other. What is worse, without love and guidance teens will go to extremes. Conyers is living proof of these facts. During discussions with public health experts, Conyers’ teens described their disconnected relationships with their parents. The teens desperately needed parental approval. Many of them wanted to hear their parents say they were doing something good.
When will we recognize that teens need more than new cars and the latest styles in clothing? Teens want a sense of belonging most of all. Teens know they belong when their parents are at home giving them proper attention. Claire Sterk also stated, “It’s almost like material aspects have begun running people’s lives…. One of the mistakes that all adults are prone to make is to provide adolescents with material goods, be it a special cd player, be it special clothes. Whatever it is. And say, ‘This is my sign of love to you.’ And the adolescents are very happy with that. They’ll take any kind of presents that you give ‘em. What they don’t tell you, because it is not cool to tell you as an adolescent, is, ‘I’d like a hug, I’d like to just sit next to you for five minutes and not talk about anything.’… And somehow by becoming so focused on where we are in terms of class in society as adults we forget that we then need to take the initiative to provide that kind of emotional support to our teenagers.” Children cannot grow up healthy by themselves. We must learn this great truth.
The teens in Conyers wanted most to be a part of a family. Because they did not have family at home, they essentially made their own. Kathleen Toomey also observed, “The teens had formed their own social network, their own group, and they got approval from that group. And sadly, the approval required them to perform in more and more bizarre ways…and carry out higher and higher risk activities.”
Solomon, the wisest man on earth prior to Jesus Christ, stated, “The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame” (Prov. 29:15). The families involved in the std outbreak in Conyers have felt great shame. Most parents refused to be interviewed by pbs.
The parents who did agree to be interviewed admitted that they were confused about discipline and how much to discipline. One male teen acknowledged, “Most people, when they’re 17, their parents won’t let them stay out as long as they want. I come and go whenever I want…. They’re not really the kind of parents to really give a lot of discipline.” Although teens are not ready to admit it, they do need and want their limits set for them. They may test those limits, but they know they are loved when the limits are set clearly and are held firm.
The documentary revealed that this boy received little discipline because his parents disagreed about how to discipline. His father stated emphatically, “She disagrees with me, but my feeling is you need to give them a little bit of leeway. Let them go out and sow their oats as they’re young, so they won’t do it when they are old. Put them on a long leash and as long as they don’t step out of your boundaries, let them go. But if they do step out of your boundaries, yank that chain back. I’m very lenient with them. She’s not. And she doesn’t want me to be as lenient as I am, but that is just the way I feel.”
When a couple is divided on how to discipline, often there will be little or no discipline. Generally one parent’s actions will undermine the other. The boy’s mother admitted tearfully, “I think you should, you know, put your foot down and tell them that you’re not going to put up with this and that.” There are those times when all parents should say no to harmful and detrimental things. But, parents must use balance and wisdom and never become just a “no machine.” We must look for the positive things to say yes to.
Believe this: Even though teens may fight us and fight hard, they still know deep down that they must be told no at times. This same mother said, “And just the other day, me and Jenny [her daughter] was in here talking, and she…was saying, ‘I wish you’d been more…strict with me.’ I said, ‘Jenny, how could—you wouldn’t let me be strict,’ you know? ‘You threatened to run away.’ I said, ‘That is easy for you to say now, but the child that you are, stubborn as you are, how could I have been stricter with you?’” Unfortunately, for some parents and teens it is only after a crisis hits that some recognize the value of discipline.
Many parents in America have given up the fight with their teen. This woman sadly admitted so. “Yeah. I have literally [given] up. I got tired of the fighting, the bickering with Jenny…. I got to the point where it’s easier for me to let Jenny go do what she wants to instead of standing there fussing and fighting with her.” This concerned mother actually lost the war with both her husband and her children. The daughter said this about her parents: “They used to be real strict on us. It was, like, us kids kind of took over and started to do what we wanted to, and they just gave up.” Another teen stated, “Yeah. There are so many ways that we can sneak around our parents’ back and do what we want.” We must learn the lesson that if we do not use our authority as parents, our teens will take over. And they will choose a path to their own destruction.
The so-called experts admit that some teens will choose to go bad even if parents do an effective job of parenting. But in Conyers, it is evident that the root cause of the teen problems lies mostly with the parents.
Beth Ross, director of counseling at Rockdale County Schools, told pbs, “I think there are a lot of children who are running their own lives, who really are testing limits or don’t know what the limits are. They’re like a balloon, out there floating around in the sky with little direction. And to run into a power line or to a tree and just burst is something that they’re very unaware that could happen. They don’t know what is down the road.”
Can we see the incredible value of what has been uncovered in Conyers? The real and only workable solution for our teen problem is for parents to take loving and firm control of their families—now! Our teens need direction from their parents. Fathers must become real fathers, and mothers real mothers. Parents are the major source of discipline, moral guidance and direction that all children need. No other adult can adequately replace a parent.
Few parents in Conyers wanted to take responsibility for their teen’s extreme lifestyle. The clergy, school administrators and public health officials were shocked by the parents’ reaction to the Conyers problems. Kathleen Toomey told the documentary interviewers, “And I remember when I put up the slide that showed that interaction, the sex partners, and the partners of the partners, it looked like a ball of yarn. There was actually a gasp from the audience and this total disbelief that this could have happened in their community. And there ensued a discussion, and with me there was a minister who was involved with the youth ministry, other local public servants, the police, others, talking about how this could have happened. And it was so extraordinary to me that these parents started looking for externally who to blame. ‘This caused this—TV has caused that—external groups have caused this—‘ But few of them, none of them that I can recall, ever looked to themselves. And the minister turned to me and said, ‘They don’t see. It’s them. It’s the parents. They have done this. The kids don’t talk to them.’”
Isn’t it time for the parents of America to take responsibility for their children? If we don’t, the problems in Rockdale County and every other county will simply grow worse and worse.
Let’s be positive about our teens—not repulsed by them. Let’s not ignore them. We must come to their immediate rescue. There is a cause and a solution for the critically serious condition of our teenagers. The lessons from Conyers can be used to help all families. It is never too late. The conditions can be changed! Denial or chosen ignorance will not fix the problems. Recognizing the cause and implementing the solution will.